Happy June, everyone! When I woke up this morning the bedroom was light, but the early birds outside told me it was close to 5:30. It took a moment, but once I realized it was Saturday I relaxed quickly, knowing I could have a lie in or get up and do things that aren’t related to work. Just a moment later, I got excited because today we are going on vacation! My wife and I are packing up our four sons and heading to a lake to spend the next week with her family. We do this every year, and I love it. We swim, go on hikes, and generally have a really good time relaxing. Also, I usually read more books during this holiday than at any other time of year.
Speaking of reading . . .
Lockwood & Co.
A while back my wife checked out The Screaming Staircase from the library. It’s the first book in a five-book series about a trio of kids who investigate and try to neutralize dangerous ghosts in London. Okay, that might not sound exciting to some of you, but the first paragraph is just wonderful. Look at how well author Jonathan Stroud introduces this story:
Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up. There, I’ve admitted it! Not a single one of those early cases ended as neatly as we’d have wished. Yes, the Mortlake Horror was driven out, but only as far as Richmond Park, where even now it stalks by night among the silent trees. Yes, both the Grey Specter of Aldgate and the entity known as the Clattering Bones were destroyed, but not before several further (and I now think unnecessary) deaths. And as for the creeping shadow that haunted young Mrs. Andrews, to the imperilment of her sanity and her hemline, where she may continue to wander in this world, poor thing, there it follows too. So it was not exactly an unblemished record that we took with us, Lockwood and I, when we walked up the path to 62 Sheen Road on that misty autumn afternoon and briskly rang the bell.
Anyway, I finished the first book and am already well into the second. I recommend them to anyone, but in particular those of you with kids who are ready for some spooky fun. Am I taking as many of these on vacation as I can pack? Yep! I hope to have a longer review soon . . .
Lincoln in the Bardo
When George Saunders’ debut novel came out, I didn’t much like it. Then it went on to win awards and become super-duper critically acclaimed. So many friends loved it. No, not everyone loved it, but it sure felt like it. Though I respect Saunders’ work a lot, for the last while I’ve had some niggling issues with it, as I’m sure some of you know. My bad reaction to “The Semplica Girl Diaries” still gets attention from people who email me to let me know how far I’ve fallen off my rocker.
I decided, then, to go back and re-read Lincoln in the Bardo. Or, rather, to listen to it this time. The audiobook, like the novel itself, won some awards for being the best. Because the book is laid out almost like a play, the audiobook has a host of actors playing the voices of each character, with the central trio played by Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, and George Saunders himself. I’ve listened to all three of these men read other works, and I’ve really enjoyed it. But I’m afraid not even they could bring this material to life for me.
What, then, is going on?! Why can’t I enjoy this book that holds promise and that everyone else seems to have unlocked? I know I get caught up in the structure, which feels like any old play to me, except when Saunders wants to step away from the play format and utilize prose to convey a scene he has another character adopt the role of first-person narrator. That technique is always very distracting to me, as I wonder what on earth these characters are doing speaking their lines, one by one, often cutting each other off, and then one steps aside and narrates more.
It’s not just this, I don’t think. The central image, that of Lincoln cradling his dead son in the cemetery, is powerful, so pervasive, and so provocative, and I don’t think the book lives up to it. It’s the same issue I have with, say, “The Semplica Girl Diaries”: Saunders can write circles around most, he can snatch a powerful image and bring it to life, but the themes crash in the meantime, failing to quite reach the depths I think he has reached in the past. The structure, the voice, the images — if they don’t take precedence over the deeper exploration of humanity they’re certainly better developed. Over the last decade I’ve felt that Saunders themes were rather shallow, and I feel it this time reading Lincoln in the Bardo for a second time. Perhaps I’ll be moved by the end and it will help me see what I’ve been missing. I hope so.
The Ole Emperor’s New Clothes Criticism
When looking at my response to Lincoln in the Bardo I realize that I could be saying that there is nothing there. Taken a step further, it suggests that those who see something there are wrong, are fooled, and do not have a mind of their own. I don’t think that’s the case, though. I truly would like to access Saunders’ work again the way I used to, and writing about my reaction does help me understand where I’m at. But one of the laziest responses to a story, or, rather, to someone’s response to a story, is tossing out the Emperor’s New Clothes. It has happened to me a number of times: I’ll love a story and someone will get on here and say the emperor has no clothes. It’s not helpful, because this response is directed at me and does not engage with the story at all. It says: the story is empty, and you are simply saying you like it because you’re deceived by reputation and peer pressure. When talking to someone who feels differently about a story, there can be a fine line between criticizing the story and criticizing the other person. Sometimes that person will take it personally and feel that line has been crossed, even if it hasn’t. It’s hard to say the line hasn’t been crossed, though, when the ole Emperor’s New Clothes makes its way into the conversation.
A Patreon Plea
I am very grateful for those of you who have supported the site in various ways over the years. It’s been nearly eleven years since I sat down one July morning and started The Mookse and the Gripes. It will keep going. If you’re able to support the costs — it keeps getting more expensive — let me point to Patreon. Breaking even each month requires approximately $100, so anything you could contribute — every dollar goes a long way — is appreciated. Of course, there are many other ways to support the site, and you’re doing so just by reading this! Let me know if there are things you’d like to see here. For example, a few months ago a reader recommended some more books for young readers, and my wife and I have been working on that corner of the site — see Lockwood & Co. above!
Okay, the birds outside have stopped singing and I imagine at any moment the kids will be downstairs doing Saturday morning things, which they don’t do quietly. I think it’s time to get moving . . . I still have to pack! Everyone please have a safe, happy weekend, with as much bookish activity as you can muster! I’m going to go figure out what books to pack!